Bexar County Sheriff’s Office body camera video
For decades, American courts had to believe that drug-sniffing dogs were impartial. Testimony from a dog handler, along with training records and credentials from a local K-9 organization, were usually sufficient. But the recent spread of body cameras now threatens to upend that faith.
A recently filed federal lawsuit in Texas shows the potential of cameras to undermine the legitimacy of the K-9 unit. Houston resident Alek Schott accuses Bexar County Sheriff’s Deputy Joel Babb of shooting him on Interstate 35 under false pretences, then when he refused to give permission to search his van, he says K-9 Unit Deputy Martin A. Molina III tricked his dog into “alert” on the smell of drugs.
“These guys are trying to destroy my life”
Historically, this claim would have been nearly impossible to prove. But in this case, Schott requested and received the officers’ report body camera footage, giving her almost the same view the K-9 handler had – including the moment the handler’s right hand gestured toward the attentive dog, who then jumped out the door of the pickup.
“It’s clear to me that he’s telling the dog to alert,” Schott says. “I thought, ‘These guys are trying to destroy my life.’ “
No drugs were found in Schott’s van, and the county later reimbursed him for damages caused during the search, including dog scratches on the exterior and interior of the truck. The sheriff’s office declined to comment on the matter to NPR, citing “ongoing litigation.”
Schott, 37, who works for his father’s company that supplies the oil and gas industry, is represented by Christie Hebert, an attorney at the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties organization focused on search and seizure. She says they are pursuing the lawsuit because they believe the deputies violated Schott’s rights – and did so in part by relying on the dog.
“You think a dog doesn’t have an agenda,” Hebert says. “But the fact is that they are influenced by the agenda of their masters and they want to please their masters.”
It has long been a lingering doubt about drug-sniffing dogs: that handlers could influence them to alert to a scent that may not be there. Research has shown that handlers may not even realize they are doing it. Some K-9 trainers have called for “double-blind” testing of dogs, in which the location and existence of drugs being tested are randomized, unknown even to the handler. But this approach has been slow to take hold and often comes up against hostility.
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“It seems to be some signal he is giving to the dog”
Andy Falco, a former K-9 officer and trainer, hopes the spread of body cameras will change that.
“I think it’s good for the K-9 units that these things are there,” he says of the cameras. “It will make them train harder, and maybe even some of them who weren’t double-blind sniffing will start doing double-blind sniffing!”
Falco works as an expert witness in cases involving sniffer dogs, and he says the number of legal challenges based on close-up videos has skyrocketed. Most cases now involve cameras and close examinations of every gesture and movement of handlers and dogs. In a case he worked on, the Idaho Supreme Court threw out a drug conviction because it ruled the K-9 ‘raped’ a vehicle with his paw – a degree of afterthought which would have been impossible before body cameras. .
And when Falco sees the Bexar County video, he understands why Schott is suing. “Right hand up, then moving it up – that’s the order to sit down. There’s no reason for him to do it where he does, so it’s not out of place,” he said. “It seems to be some signal he’s giving to the dog.”
Other K-9 coaches say the video is not a slam-dunk and there could be innocent explanations for the gesture. But one thing is clear to them: Going forward, K-9 units should expect that their every move and gesture can be examined once the search is complete.